Perennial Edibles Aren’t Just Good Eating: They’re Ornamental, Too

Many weeks before tomato seedlings can be safely transplanted outside — or almost any freshly seed-sown vegetables dare break the surface of the slowly warming soil — harvest is underway in John Forti’s Maine garden.

When you grow a range of perennial edibles, you have what Mr. Forti calls “the shoulder seasons” covered, and then some, with no replanting year to year required.

“They tell great stories of resilience,” he said of the perennial crops. “I think it’s partly why our ancestors grew them, because they’re there when your annual vegetables aren’t.”

As March turns to April, his reaping begins, with the lemony leaves of common sorrel (Rumex acetosa). Such stalwarts were a lifeline, especially in the days before supermarkets, said Mr. Forti, a horticulturist, garden historian and ethnobotanist. Some even delivered bravely before and after frost. Exceptionally long-lived, they were the definition of sustainability, before that word was trending.

“But it’s also this really delicious taste of all the vital energy that was stored up underground over winter that lets us take nourishment and enjoy the first greens,” Mr. Forti added.

In the case of sorrel, he said, “Your mouth just goes crazy. It’s so citrusy and green. Eating the first leaves every spring, it’s almost like a little rite of passage.”

He adds the first flush of leaves to salad. When there are enough, he’ll make sorrel soup, or a green sauce for fish.

And those sorrel plants keep on giving: When they start to stretch up, and the older leaves have grown bitter, cut them back “flat to the ground,” Mr. Forti said. Do this about once a month for flushes of fresh foliage that continue through frost.

Why isn’t sorrel in every vegetable garden where it’s hardy (Zones 3 to 7)?

Mr. Forti, whom gardeners may know as “The Heirloom Gardener,” after the title of his 2021 book and popular Facebook page, has directed gardens for Plimoth Patuxet Museums (formerly Plimoth Plantation Museum), in Plymouth, Mass., Strawbery Banke Museum, in Portsmouth, N.H., and the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. These days, he is the executive director of Bedrock Gardens, in Lee, N.H., just across the Piscataqua River from his Maine home, a 30-acre historic former farm transformed into a public garden and art space.

An enthusiastic cook and preserver of various concoctions — including chive vinegar, ramp salt and rhubarb chutney — Mr. Forti is also a longtime force in the Slow Food USA movement and the Herb Society of America. No surprise, then, that he has a special relationship with the edible portions of the “long, deep acre” of garden around his home of 23 years.

“Every day kind of starts off with a walk around my gardens with a cup of tea or coffee,” he said, “seeing what’s come up, what I might be adding to dinner and just what makes my eyes happy.”

Edible perennials have a “cultural resonance with victory gardens,” Mr. Forti said. When the edibles are native, he added, there is a particular satisfaction, because growing natives is “one of the first layers of heirloom gardening.”

As spring gets going, seven patches of ramps (Allium tricoccum) are also ready. He planted them in woodsy spots down behind the house, wanting to grow his own supply rather than pressure wild local populations by foraging. He likewise gathers fiddleheads, the unfurled croziers, from some of his ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), another woodland native he planted that weaves romantically around the garden.

But his morning walkabouts aren’t just about harvesting ingredients. They’re also redolent with stories.

One energetic swath of rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) — another early riser — erupts from roots inherited from his grandparents’ garden, where he knew the plant as a boy. A second was given to him by an old gardening mentor he knew at Plymouth, who died at 97.

Mr. Forti regards his home landscape — and any garden — as he did the museum gardens he directed: as “a living history.”

“It’s a storied place,” he said. “And I build on the story, because I think we all inherit landscapes when we move into a house, and then we put a piece of ourselves and our stories into that landscape. And I’ve always loved being a part of a continuum like that.”

He added: “They’re all part of an annual revisiting with people you loved.”

When asked about “his” horseradish, a perennial Brassica grown for its spicy roots, he is quick to clarify: It is, in fact, Shiva Shapiro’s horseradish. The Ukrainian Jewish immigrant’s early 20th-century garden was unearthed during the restoration and recreation of the historic community at Strawbery Banke — and with it, her horseradish. He inherited a piece.

These hand-me-down plants weave narratives as they knit the garden together.

“I love it when they merge and have a party, and there isn’t space between them to weed,” Mr. Forti said.

Can there be too much of a good thing? All that’s needed with perennial edibles is some judicious harvesting.

“If I need to control that population,” he said, “that’s me making a pot of tea, a liqueur or a salad for a party.”

Yes, these perennials are grown for culinary use, but that doesn’t mean their ornamentality won’t be taken into consideration when siting them.

“I have rhubarb growing like somebody else might grow hosta,” Mr. Forti said. “I think it’s a beautiful foliage plant with a lot of character, so I just mix them right in where it makes sense in my landscape.”

He harvests plenty of tender stalks, transforming some into batches of his chunky rhubarb sauce laced with candied ginger. But eventually he lets the plants flower. To him, they “resemble ridiculous cauliflower clouds” rising up above the extrabold foliage.

Conversely, his hostas do edible duty, not just ornamental service. He first tasted unopened hosta shoots, or hostons, in Japan, where they are savored as a springtime “mountain vegetable,” along with ostrich fern (an Allium cousin of our ramps), bamboo shoots and more.

“And who doesn’t have spare hosta?” Mr. Forti said. “It’s easy to go through and cut out some shoots where it’s thickest, and have an early spring green to cook, as you might prepare asparagus.”

He was among many homebound gardeners who used a pandemic spring to plant a bed of asparagus, a crop that arrived in America in the 17th century, he said. Store-bought asparagus, which loses vitality after picking, pales against the succulent homegrown version.

“I can hardly get myself to cook it, it’s so delicious raw,” he said.

Like the rhubarb, he sited it carefully, taking advantage of an often-overlooked trait. “I placed mine where it offers a tall focal point beyond the other gardens,” he said. “So that later in the season, when it sends up fronds that look like your living room asparagus fern, and they’re all covered with the coral berries, it makes a nice backdrop. It’s very ethereal and airy looking.”

Even more ornamental is a little-known native vine, the American groundnut (Apios americana), which has fragrant, pinkish-brown summer blooms on vines that can reach 10 feet or more. It’s a favorite of the flat-tailed leaf-cutter bee, and a host plant for silver-spotted skipper butterfly caterpillars, said Ulrich Lorimer, the director of horticulture for Native Plant Trust.

Give it room, Mr. Forti recommended — perhaps its own fence to cover. Established vines produce underground tubers that resemble small potatoes, but are much higher in protein, a favorite ingredient for adding to soups.

Like the native perennial sunflower, the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus), the groundnut is “very assertive,” Mr. Forti said. But he savors its knobby tubers, so he makes room for it, knowing that native plants also support pollinators and other wildlife.

Throughout the season, edible flowers enliven Mr. Forti’s garden and cuisine: violets, chives, daylily and two species of native Monarda, among them.

The foliage of Scarlet beebalm (M. didyma), which bears the vibrant flavor of Earl Grey, is used for tea; its blooms, eaten straight from the hand, are sweet and minty. Lavender-colored wild bergamot (M. fistulosa) is “spicier, more like oregano or marjoram,” he said.

But the prize for the most delicious flowers goes to an unexpected native: the smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), a shade perennial with arching stems dangling pairs of little greenish-white, tubular spring flowers.

Their flavor? “Like garden peas blended with the sweet nectar of flowers,” Mr. Forti said. “They offer a juicy, succulent garden candy.”

Reach under the arching branch and pull off a handful to pop in your mouth, he suggested — or use them to garnish a salad or a bowl of sorrel soup. The emerging shoots can also be eaten like asparagus.

And too few gardeners have discovered the power of lovage (Levisticum officinale), Mr. Forti thinks. It’s another 17th-century import that never caught on as well as chives (Allium schoenoprasum) or sage (Salvia officinalis), but which he cannot imagine being without.

He likens it to a perennial celery, but with a less delicate taste. Its leaves go into green and egg salads, or pots of beans. “I wouldn’t make soup without adding lovage,” he said.

The hollow stalks delight him, too. Cut sections can be used as drinking straws that give “an incredible celery flavor to every sip.”

Bloody Mary, anyone?

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

If you have a gardening question, email it to Margaret Roach at [email protected], and she may address it in a future column.

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